Sleepless nights, overeating, a weakened immune system — the more common symptoms of stress are probably familiar to you. But stress can also trigger lesser-known side effects (both mental and physical) that you might not expect.
Here, Rosalind S. Dorlen, PsyD, a New Jersey-based, board-certified clinical psychologist and member of the psychiatry department at the Overlook Medical Center, shares some of the more surprising ways stress may manifest in your body.
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If you're feeling foggy or having a tough time focusing, stress may be the culprit, Dorlen says.
Indeed, stress and anxiety can hinder your attention and your ability to retrieve memories (or even make new ones), according to Harvard Health Publishing.
In fact, a November 2018 study in Neurology demonstrated that adults with higher levels of cortisol (the "stress hormone") exhibited impaired memory and lower brain volumes.
2. Skin Issues
"Skin reactions like hives, viral exanthem (an eruptive skin rash), acne and cold sores seem to be an unfortunate example of collateral damage people experience under periods of extreme stress," Dorlen says.
Here's why: "Stress causes our bodies to make hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which activate skin glands to produce oiliness, which can be a factor in acne and other skin-related conditions," she says.
What's more, during stressful times, we tend to neglect our usual self-care regimens (think: reduced sleep, skipping your face wash routine at bedtime, etc.) which can create or exacerbate existing skin vulnerabilities, Dorlen explains.
3. Reduced Sex Drive
Lost your libido? "Heightened or chronic stress can interfere with our body's hormone levels, producing greater amounts of cortisol and epinephrine, and the effect can reduce sexual interest or desire," Dorlen says.
Think about it: If your body is in a constant reactive state of flight-or-fight, fear or paralysis due to stress, these conditions aren't exactly conducive to sexy time.
Indeed, an October 2013 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine discovered that high levels of chronic stress were correlated with less sexual arousal in women. The researchers concluded that psychological distraction and increased cortisol played a major role.
And the physical effects of stress can be negative for men, too. According to Dorlen, "the long-term effects of stress can narrow and restrict blood flow, which is one of a number of factors associated with erectile dysfunction."
Conversely, it's much easier to get in the mood when you're feeling loose and relaxed. "That may be why so many couples enjoy expanded sexual interest and participation when on vacation," Dorlen says.
4. Tight Muscles
Have you suddenly noticed tension in your neck, back or shoulders? Stress may be the culprit.
Our bodies deal with stress by going into fight-or-flight mode, Dorlen explains, which means releasing hormones that ready our muscles to respond to whatever is threatening us. This can be helpful in the short term (think: running from a bear), but can cause issues if we're consistently under stress.
"Muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury during stressful conditions, so they may not get a chance to relax if the stress is continual," Dorlen says.
And to make matters worse, stress and anxiety can intensify your perception of muscular pain and decrease your ability to cope with it, according to the North American Spine Society.
Feeling on edge? Irritability is a common symptom of chronic and prolonged stress, Dorlen says. This may have something to do with your body's chemical reaction to stress.
When your body releases chemicals in response to a perceived threat, your heart and breathing skyrocket to help you spring into action. This may have helped you flee a hungry predator back in the day, but today it might just leave you feeling tense, moody and even angry.
A January 2015 study in the American Heart Journal found that high levels of anger appeared to be linked to mental distress and an increased cardiovascular risk, while another November 2015 paper in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B discovered an association between anger and stressors in caregivers.
6. Gut Problems
Anyone who's ever experienced a "nervous stomach" knows that stress can go straight to your gut.
Chronic stress can cause a whole range of GI complications, including stomachaches, constipation and diarrhea, according to Dorlen.
That's because your gut and central nervous system are in constant communication, per John Hopkins Medicine. In fact, they're so intimately connected that your gut is often referred to as your "second brain."
From spilling coffee on your shirt to losing your keys and sitting in gridlock, everyday annoyances can be a headache — literally.
It goes back to that fight-or-flight response. When your body enters this state and produces hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, it causes vascular changes that prep your muscles to deal with the danger. But this chain of events can also give you a migraine or headache, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
What's more, during periods of high stress, many people experience tightness in their neck, jaw and shoulders — dubbed the "tension triangle" — which only worsens tension headaches, per the Cleveland Clinic.
4 Stress-Reducing Strategies
Though it's impossible to completely eliminate stress from your life, you can learn to better manage daily stressors and, in doing so, improve your overall wellbeing.
Here are some ways to help you cope:
1. Deep Breathing
Breathing exercises (like the 4-7-8 method) can calm your body's fight-or-flight instincts and elicit a relaxation response, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Practicing meditation, which includes deep belly breathing, can help you let go of negative emotions that may be causing you mental and physical stress, per the American Psychological Association.
There's an App for That
Check out six meditation apps that help you recenter and de-stress.
3. Physical Activity
Getting your body moving with regular exercise and gentle movements like yoga, tai chi and stretching exercises can be good for reducing muscle tension and beneficial for busting stress, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Spending a few minutes each day practicing gratitude (think: writing down something you're grateful for) can help you feel happier, more positive and less stressed, per the National Institutes of Health.
Want to Give It a Try?
Here's a 5-minute gratitude exercise designed to help ease stress.
- North American Spine Society: “Back Pain and Emotional Distress.”
- Journal of Sports Sciences: “Perceived Life Stress and Anxiety Correlate With Chronic Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Runners.”
- John Hopkins Medicine: “The Brain-Gut Connection.”
- Harvard Health Publishing.: “7 common causes of forgetfulness.”
- Neurology: “Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study.”
- Cleveland Clinic: “7 Strange Things Stress Can Do to Your Body.”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Stress and Headaches.”
- Journal of Sexual Medicine: "Chronic stress and sexual function in women."
- The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: “Depressive Mood, Anger, and Daily Cortisol of Caregivers on High- and Low-Stress Days.”
- American Heart Journal: “Association between Anger and Mental Stress-Induced Myocardial Ischemia.”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response.”
- American Psychological Association: “Five tips to help manage stress.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior.”
- National Institutes of Health: “Practicing Gratitude"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.